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Muse Headband Review: A Fitbit for Your Brain

Can wearable tech help you become a more calm and focused person? Muse thinks so.

I’m not sure that this whole “being an adult” thing is working out for me.

Between work, trying to pay bills and life in general, a lot of my days are filled with stress and anxiety. And there are times where I feel like I’m just spinning my wheels trying to juggle multiple responsibilities. Since my first instinct — to run away to Hawaii — isn’t really a viable option, I find other outlets for releasing my frustrations. Running, surfing and yoga have always worked for me. But here comes a company that thinks tech could be the answer for creating a more serene state of being.

For the past week and a half, I’ve been testing a brain-sensing headband called Muse. Created by a Toronto-based company called InteraXon, the headband is outfitted with sensors to measure and track your brain activity, and works with an accompanying mobile app called Calm to train your mind to be more focused and calm. There’s also a gamification element to the app that’s meant to motivate you. It’s sort of like a Fitbit for your brain.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Using Muse has been an interesting experience. On the one hand, it’s easy to use, and the sessions have generally been enjoyable. They helped me become more relaxed during stressful parts of my day. I also like that the app keeps tabs on your data, so you can track your progress or pinpoint why you might have had a bad or good day — something you don’t get with activities like meditation or yoga.

On the other hand, I have yet to see any long-term benefits from it. On really busy days, I still feel myself tensing up and getting overwhelmed when I have too much going on.

Certainly, this could change with more use. But there is some debate over the effectiveness of these types of brain-training apps and gadgets. And I should note that Muse is not a medically approved device, so if you’re having more serious issues, you should consult a health professional.

Perhaps the biggest barrier for Muse is price. At $300, it’s not a gadget that I’d readily recommend to consumers. It’s limited in its capabilities right now, and as with other wearables, there’s the potential to lose interest after the novelty wears off — I’m already feeling some of that fatigue. That said, the company says it will be adding more features in the coming year, and the platform is open to developers to create apps around Muse, so it’s certainly something to keep an eye on.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Muse is based on electroencephalography (EEG) technology, which measures electrical activity in your brain. Typically, an EEG test requires attaching sensors to your head; the sensors are connected to a computer via wires. But there are no wires involved with Muse. In a similar way that heart monitors can measure your heartbeat, Muse says it can do so with brain activity.

The headband itself looks similar to those over-the-ear sport headphones, except the band goes in front, across your forehead. Your brain activity is measured through sensors that are built into the band and the two earpieces. In general, I found Muse comfortable to wear, and the headband is adjustable. But I often had to reposition it in order to get the sensors in the right place, which got to be annoying (more on this in a bit).

Muse connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth, and the free Calm app is available for iOS, Android and Kindle Fire devices. I paired it with the iPhone 6 Plus, and the process was simple and quick. Muse’s rechargeable battery is estimated to last about five hours.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Once connected, a soothing female voice provides instructions on using the app (I’d recommend turning this off in the Settings menu after you’ve gotten the hang of things). The first thing you need to do during each session is make sure that the headband can read your brain signals. This is shown onscreen, with each sensor displaying a solid color when connected properly. But, as I mentioned before, I frequently had to readjust Muse, and sometimes it took a minute or two to get the right placement.

Once that’s done, Calm asks you to do a quick exercise to calibrate the headband. This involves listing things based on the category given to you, such as shapes, bodies of water or famous places. The calibration must be done every single time you use Muse, not just during initial setup.

After that, the real session starts. On the app, you’ll see a beach landscape, and then you’ll be asked to close your eyes and count your breaths. Calm provides real-time feedback of your brain activity through audio cues.

For example, if your mind is active, you’ll hear loud, strong winds and crashing waves. The goal is to focus and relax, so that you hear little to no wind. If you’re calm for an extended period of time, you might even hear birds chirping in the distance. You can do the exercise for as long as 20 minutes or as little as three minutes. Afterward, you’ll get a graphical breakdown of how long you were in an active, neutral or calm state.

I read a book during one of my first sessions, while doing the exercise as sort of a control experiment. A graph of my session showed that my brain was indeed active the whole time. When I did the session in earnest for the first time, I found myself concentrating too much on the sounds coming from the app (Why is it so windy? Are those crashing waves?), instead of my breathing. The result was that I was calm only 26 percent of my session.

After a couple more tries, I was able to relax, focus on my breathing, and stay in a calmer state for a longer period of time. My peak so far has been 78 percent — on a Monday morning, no less.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

It was nice to be able to go back and review all my data. But I wish there was a way to add notes to each session to remind me why I may have been more stressed one day and relaxed another. Also, while I looked forward to using Muse early on, I began getting bored with the same exercise by the fourth or fifth day.

Muse does try to gamify the experience by rewarding you with points to unlock new features and other achievements. But those weren’t huge draws for me. The company says it is working on an overhaul of the app for early 2015 that will add new exercises and the ability to write notes, among other things.

The Muse headband is an interesting concept, and one that has potential for more uses in the future. But for now, you may want to hold off and go for a walk or take yoga classes instead.

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